Frequently, pro-life leaders draw a parallel between slavery and abortion. “You Say Abortion Is Legal? The Supreme Court Also Legalized Slavery,” reads one popular bumper sticker. The motivation for this comparison is understandable, since slavery and the Civil War occupy central places in the American historical imagination. By gesturing toward one of the issues associated with the iconic figure of Abraham Lincoln, the pro-lifers try to draw upon a powerful and influential legacy. 

Upon examination, however, the slavery-abortion analogy does not hold up,  and we can persist in touting it only by falsifying history and distorting the Christian tradition. It is one thing to be glad that slavery no longer exists . It is quite another to redefine perennial teachings to make them conform to the American civil religion, which gives to the slavery issue far more weight than does the Faith. 

Perhaps the best-known proponent of the slavery-abortion analogy is Princeton professor Robert George, who argues that slavery and abortion alike constitute a “denial of the equal dignity of a particular category of human beings.” As George’s fixation with equality unnecessarily complicates things, we might also turn to Justin Dyer from the University of Missouri, who contends in Public Discourse that each controversy raises the question of “what it means to be a person.” Just as the abortionist denies the child’s humanity and accords unlimited power to the mother, or possibly himself, so likewise did slaveholders deny the slave’s humanity and accord absolute power to the master. Dyer concludes that both practices invariably “violate the basic moral principle that persons ought never to be treated as things to be used or discarded.”

Much as he may have agreed with the basic moral principle, Saint John Chrysostom seems to have drawn quite different conclusions. In his homily expounding upon 1 Corinthians 7, Chrysostom asserts that “it is obvious that Paul’s intention is not to abolish slavery as a social institution,” for “he attacks slavery in its worst form, the slavery to evil, which pays no respect to any external freedom.” No casual aside, Chrysostom’s argument against interfering with slavery goes on for quite some time:

If you are not held in bondage to sin, rejoice and have no fear; no one can harm you, since you are made of such stuff that no one can enslave. But if you are a slave of sin, I tell you that even if you are free ten thousand times over, it is of no advantage to you. 


Can you tell me what advantage a man has who, although not in bondage to another man, is in constant subjection to his own passions? At least men are merciful from time to time, but the passions—they won’t be satisfied until they have destroyed you! Are you another man’s slave? Well, your master is also enslaved to you:  he has to provide you with food, take care of your health, and provide you with clothing, shoes, and every other need. You have to take care not to offend your master, but his cares for your material welfare are greater. Does he recline at table, while you stand and serve him? So what! The reverse also is true. Often while you are lying in bed sleeping sweetly, your master is not only standing, but keeping a most unpleasant vigil in a marketplace full of strife.

Just to be clear, Chrysostom is not “pro-slavery” in the sense of insisting upon slavery as a positive good. His argument is about priorities: Our foremost concern should be the cultivation of the immortal soul, not the attainment of political and civil rights in the here and now. His position should not be dismissed lightly; for the purposes of evaluating the abortion-slavery analogy it is surely significant that he makes the argument at all. 

Should pro-lifers see Chrysostom as standing on the opposing side, since he shrugs off an institution that was supposedly just as bad as abortion? If not, why not? If slavery per se entails a denial of human dignity, then do any disparities of wealth, power, or status constitute a denial of human dignity, as Marxists, feminists, and gay-rights activists argue? If not, why not?

Turning to Scripture, we can even gloss over the several embarrassing references to slavery made by Saint Paul, such as “servants, be obedient to them that are your lords” (Ephesians 6:5). Instead, turning to the Gospel of Luke, we find a Roman centurion reflecting upon his authority over his servant—the word used in the Greek text is δο?λος (doulos), which unambiguously signifies “slave.” In response, Christ  characterizes the centurion as extraordinarily praiseworthy  (Luke 7: 8-9). If holding a bondsman were in itself morally indistinguishable from murdering a child, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to believe the Lord would have merely commended the centurion’s “great faith,” and left it at that.

As Gerard Verschuuren concedes in the disappointing “Slavery” chapter of his otherwise exemplary book, Five Anti-Catholic Myths, not only did Christ and His apostles never challenge slavery, Church Fathers actually accepted it, and there are examples of popes, missionaries, nuns, and religious orders owning slaves.

  For Verschuuren as for so many others, these awkward facts are an occasion to indulge in circular reasoning. While the Church did not directly challenge the institution of slavery the way it directly challenged idolatry, witchcraft, polygamy, and countless other widely accepted practices, by recognizing the humanity of slaves the Church by definition promoted abolitionism, Verschuuren argues. Such an argument is identical in form to the claim that the Church must by definition promote socialism since it recognizes the humanity of the poor.

In any case, proponents of the slavery-abortion analogy are implicitly invited by Verschuuren’s argument to imagine early Christians shrugging off infant exposure—or early popes, colonial Maryland’s Jesuits, and saints helping girls procure the abortifacient potions already forbidden by the ancient, pagan Hippocratic Oath. If we cannot imagine such scenes, maybe there’s a reason.

As an aside, it is simply disingenuous to pretend that in the antebellum American South slaves were regarded in the same way the child in the mother’s womb is today. To cite but one of several inconvenient facts, a mere decade before the War Between the States, Virginia’s General Court rejected the appeal of one Simeon Souther, who had been convicted of murder for having killed one of his slaves. Although it endorsed the peculiar institution, the court also insisted that “the relation of master and slave affords no ground of excuse or palliation” for such a “case of atrocious and wicked cruelty.” And so “the principles of the common law in relation to homicide apply to his case, without qualification or exception; and according to those principles, the act of the prisoner, in the case under consideration, amounted to murder.” Souther was remitted to a penitentiary, where he died.

So the assumption that slaves were nonpersons with no moral or legal rights whatsoever is an unexamined one, based upon prejudices that are likewise unexamined.  “The law protected the legal right of the slave to his Sabbath, forbidding the master to employ him on that day in secular labours, other than those of necessity and mercy,” writes Robert Lewis Dabney in his A Defense of Virginia and the South. “Instances in which slaves were prevented by their masters from attending the publick worship of God, were fully as rare among us, and as much reprobated, as similar abuses are in any other Christian country.”  

How could either the General Court’s verdict or Dabney’s remarks possibly be translated into the ethical universe of Margaret Sanger? Here leftist zealots and “respectable” conservatives tasked with sniffing out dissident thought may feel free to cry all they like about “defending slavery.” Adults capable of serious moral inquiry will recognize that we hardly need find slavery salutary to question the untold straw-men and caricatures contemporary commentators breezily heap upon people too dead to retort.

This brings up a crucial, connected metapolitical issue, which is the extent to which the Christian wing of the conservative establishment has become a politically correct echo chamber, one wherein the only respectful dialogue permissible points leftward. “It is important for our friends on the left to understand why many social conservatives find analogies between slavery and abortion to be compelling,” concludes Dyer in his summary, “and why careless denunciations of the analogy ring hollow.” Although it may have been intended only rhetorically, Dyer’s expression “our friends on the left” is nonetheless telling, for it highlights the frustrating dynamic that has, for better or for worse, caused so many to turn their backs on the conservative establishment.

Clearly, proponents of the abortion-slavery analogy take for granted that they need engage only their liberal academic colleagues, who deem it unfair to the civic-minded abortionist to compare him with wicked Southern planters. For Dyer, those of us who might be offended on behalf of George Washington, Patrick Henry, or Francis Marion are simply beneath notice, as are those troubled by the utter impossibility of reconciling with Scripture the modern hypersensitivity toward the slavery issue. A mere generation or two ago in America, however, it would have been unthinkable to imply that our admittedly fallible forefathers belong on the same plane as people who murder their own children—and it would have likewise been unthinkable to gloss over the Bible’s importance as a moral reference point.

There has been a transvaluation of values since then, and not everyone agrees with Professor George and his disciples that this transvaluation reflects an improvement. Among other things, lame comparisons with slavery obscure the real value at stake with respect to the abortion fight. Maybe equality is not the first thing we should dwell upon when we address abortion, for the unconditional fixation upon equality may have something to do with getting us into this predicament in the first place. 

Rather, we might do better to focus upon motherhood, and to think about how the maternal role has been marginalized, degraded, and subverted by revolutionaries bent upon reinventing humanity in their own image. Maybe the abortion struggle is not about individual rights, but about a foundational relationship within the natural order, a relationship which reflects that of the Mother of God with Her Son.